Siddhārtha Gautama was born into wealth and privilege who was raised in a gilded cage created by his father. He provided his son with all the material things he needed and even went so far as to have his retainers hide the sick, elderly and dying when Siddhārtha traveled through towns in order to prevent his son from seeing the suffering in the world. Siddhārtha’s father did a pretty good job of it; it wasn’t until the age of 29 when Siddhārtha saw an old man. Shocked by this he soon found a sick person, a corpse and an ascetic. It changed his life, and Siddhārtha took the first steps on the path that would lead him to Enlightenment and eventual Buddhahood.
Like Buddha’s father, American parents go to extreme efforts to protect their children from anything that might make them feel uncomfortable or frighten them. Unfortunately they aren’t raising little Buddha’s – but what the Chinese call “Little Emperors” – children who view the world through a prism of selfishness created by their parents and supported by the institutions that have developed over time to care for them. Unless they experience a brief moment of enlightenment – called satori in Buddhism as when Siddhārtha’s charioteer explained aging to him on his trip as a 29 year old – there is nothing that will boot them out of the bubble so carefully crafted by their parents and maintained by our government and school systems.
There’s a cliche that a conservative is just a liberal mugged by reality. In a sense Siddhārtha was a liberal who thought he knew everything there was to know for nearly 3 decades, only to be “mugged” by the reality that suffering – aging, dying and disease – exists in the world. I am in no way implying that Buddha was a conservative, or that conservatives have achieved Enlightenment. Buddha’s glimpse at reality was only the beginning of a long and torturous journey that ended with his enlightenment. Instead I believe that it is important for young adults to experience the world without the support of their parents, and for parents to step back and allow their children to engage with the world without protecting them with a bubble of affluence.
I got to thinking about this after reading this story about David Horowitz’s appearance at my alma mater, the University of California at San Diego. David Horowitz is one of the finer conservative minds around, and like journalist John Stossel, humorist PJ O’Rourke and columnist Charles Krauthammer a liberal mugged by reality. Horowitz makes his living by traveling around college campuses trying to push kids out of the intellectual bubbles created by years of indoctrination by liberal academics. While Horowitz might disagree with me, I think that his efforts are futile.
Instead I would like to take every college kid with a poster of Mao in her dorm room and drop her in China. Better yet how about sending every dude wearing a Che shirt to Venezuela or Bolivia. Not for just a week or two but send them there for at least a year or two. Let them see first hand what modern socialism is like. As for the kids who think Chomsky or Ward Churchill is right, send them for a year or two to a sand pit like Saudi Arabia. Have them see how much fun wearing a black burqa is like in the 115 degree heat. Even a stint in an anti-American haven like New Zealand would be worthwhile. There’s nothing like constantly having to explain every nuance of American foreign and domestic policy over the past 234 years to a nation with less world “brand awareness” than Burkina Faso.
Being an American abroad is the fastest way to finding that moment of satori that can lead one to discover reality. There’s nothing like being lectured to about American Imperialism by a citizen of the nation that subjugated half of Asia under the moniker of Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. Or being told how racist America is by someone who believes ethnic Koreans are filth and too stupid for anything but the most menial and dirty jobs. Or having to report to the local police station every time you change address just because you are a foreigner.
For me these experiences opened me up to the reality which came a few years later in the form of collapsed skyscrapers in New York, a hole in the middle of a cornfield in Pennsylvania, and a twisted and fractured facade in DC. On September 11, 2001 I was mugged by reality and from that day forward left behind the liberal bubble I had been raised in. But 9-11 wouldn’t have had that impact if I hadn’t been prepared by 5 years of living abroad.
Maybe that’s why David Horowitz, Ann Coulter and others visit college campuses. They aren’t trying to pop the bubbles of their audience, just make them a little thinner, a bit more transparent – providing moments of satori for a mind here or there that will then eventually blossom into full-blown awareness of reality later. Perhaps they understand that they can’t force full-blown enlightenment on their listeners, but they can smack the bubbles of their listeners to make them realize that they are there. Reality will then later finish the job as it has for so many of us on the Right.
As a parent myself I often wonder what Siddhārtha’s father thought of his son’s journey. He had the best of intentions for putting his son in a cage. He wanted him to have the best life – a life free of disappointment and sadness. Isn’t that what all parents want?
But as the Buddha teaches, reality is suffering. We cannot deny or ignore it just because the truth hurts. Had Buddha’s father succeeded, Siddhārtha would have lived a pleasant life, but an empty one and one that would have kept him from reaching his potential. Instead by failing as a parent, Siddhārtha’s father allowed him to attain Enlightenment what Buddhists believe is the greatest achievement any sentient being can realize – an achievement so rare that Buddha himself is the only man to have ever attained it.
Kids today need more muggings, more bubbles being popped, less intellectual protection and more challenges. Some will experience this regardless. Others will not, safe in the bosom of their parents and their educators. These “Little Emperors” are no different than Siddhārtha, only their parents and educators have been more successful at keeping them safe from any glimpse of reality or possibility of Enlightenment.
But how can these children be offered the opportunity for spiritual growth when their parents themselves have never been offered the same opportunities? These parents were themselves protected from the realities of the world. Brought up in relative prosperity they never experienced the hardship of the Depression. Born after World War 2, they had never fought for their lives or freedom against powerful and evil regimes.
We shouldn’t be surprised that these parents have themselves, infantilized by their own parents who like Buddha’s father only wanted to protect their children, want to wrap society in a cocoon of socialism and post-modern liberalism. In place of their own parents they substitute the government. They trade their freedom to succeed for the security offered by the State. Thanks to government protections failure is no longer an option for them – but conversely neither is success. Like Buddha in his early life they are incapable of achieving greatness, but unlike him they chose this bargain.
Post-modern liberalism and the socialism that exists at its core offers laudable goals. Safety. Security. Protection. But by offering these things they smother the force within each of us to achieve our own enlightenment. Ayn Rand viewed this self-actualizing force in primarily economic terms, but there are clearly spiritual aspects to it as well. Socialism deadens the spirit – as anyone who lived in the Warsaw Pact countries can attest – and that in the end is a greater threat than higher taxes and an ever-expanding government.